The workplace industry is a great big inflatable dab hand at dressing an old idea as something new, unleashing a wave of energy. Like whipping a rope. The difficulty being, as with the rope, it’s something of a finite linear path.
The latest workplace fascination is anthropology. The same discipline that brought us the comprehensively misunderstood ‘Dunbar’s Number’.
As though we’ve just found a tribe in the Borneo rainforest who’ve never encountered anyone outside their own community, and who, incredibly, don’t have a word for ‘serendipitous encounter’. Because that’s just how they roll. It’s proving to be like trying to find a single benefit of Brexit that is anything to actually do with Brexit. Yet when we say we’re dabbling in a five-syllable ‘ology we become long-term relationship material and everyone wants a bite-sized management summary to avoid having to find out about it. Which brings us back to Dunbar’s Number. Which is all about cognitive capacity.
Because, fundamentally, workplace is a narrow field with an inherently limited pool of ideas. That’s not a criticism, just a reality. And ideas are money. If everyone had one type of workplace but now needs a different type of workplace then that’s super business for everyone in the sector, from strategy to sani-wipes. And the wheels turn. So what happens to the ideas we have? Essentially, we evolve them through terminology. The flexible workplace was no different to Bürolandschaft, other than for the advances in technology that prompted greater mobility. The agile workplace was no different to the flexible workplace. The activity-based workplace – invented by Marvin Gaye in 1962 with everyone’s favourite gender-diversity anthem Wherever I Lay My Hat – was no different to the agile workplace. No-one would be able to tell the difference on inspection. They’re all simply organic, non-assigned, multi-setting environments. Or, at least, should be.
Which of course brings us to everyone’s hallowed saviour of the office (or at least half of it) in the wake of a global disaster – hybrid working. Which is actually no different to activity-based working, and so on. The dream of flexible, agile and activity-based was, after all, variable attendance in shared space based on the office being an intentional destination within an ecosystem of spaces in which to work. They all recognised that technology had, in both principle and practice, freed us from the shackles of the desk, even if the organisation’s approach to management hadn’t quite caught up. And still, in many instances, hasn’t. Which remains the critical success factor with hybrid, as it was with all its antecedents.